I read somewhere that caterpillars don’t grow wings in the cocoon. I think back to those drawings we made in kindergarten of smiling bugs rolling themselves into thick brown cigars and emerging in the third panel as smiling butterflies, wings a sloppy attempt at symmetry, and it should have been obvious. The sad green caterpillar isn’t magically growing wings in his sleep. Caterpillars are dying. He dissolves into dust, and reforms into a new creature like a phoenix, rebirth. His molecules sort themselves into life in the chrysalis and become a new animal – probably a new consciousness if you believe caterpillars had that sort of thing to begin with. It’s no magic evolution, or Cinderella story – just the biology of life, dying and re-growing. The butterfly is a parasite born in the corpse of a frozen caterpillar. They wouldn’t tell that to kindergarteners.
I was thinking about butterflies when I was in the tattoo place off of Thayer Street. The walls were covered with the pre-made designs of skulls and dolphins that drunk bikers get on their arms and drunk sorority girls get on their ankles. There was a whole panel of butterflies, with multicolored swirling wing patterns that I could just imagine spreading across some poor girl’s lower back. She probably still thinks butterflies are grown-up caterpillars.
I went up to the counter, and told them I wanted to make an appointment for a text tattoo. The woman working the counter had gauges stretching her ears, and her forearms were canvassed with colorful birds. I was still wearing my backpack. She asked me where I wanted it.
“My side.” I gestured to the length of skin along my right torso, six inches below my armpit.
“Rib tattoo.” She wrote down.
“And how much is this going to cost?” Christ, I was speaking louder than usual above the heavy metal music. An illustrated man sat in a dentist’s chair in the back of the shop with a blank face, oblivious to my presence.
The woman at the counter handed me a post-it note and told me to write down what I wanted the tattoo to say. “Though the heart be still as loving, and the moon be still as bright.” I was careful to include the comma and the period, and squeezed the words onto two even lines. She took it with an expression that crossed between amusement and indifference and said it would probably be around two hundred dollars. I wondered if she makes comments about other people’s tattoos, if she complements their choices or asks what their quotes symbolize.
She pulled out her phone to make an appointment in her calendar. I try to sound professional. “I’ll call back to schedule. And your name is?” The words were contrived even in my head. Her name was Mariah. “Alright. Thanks.” And I left, chubby white girl, suburban college kid asking about her tattoo. I could imagine Mariah laughing at me with the other employees, people who see tattoos as a lifestyle. But she seemed earnest and surprisingly genuine, if not overly enthusiastic. More likely she was betting that I was never going to come back, that the chubby white girl, suburban college kid would panic at the last minute.
Within a few days, I called the tattoo place. Something in my mind had created a burning itch to mark my skin, to put something hot and painful and permanent on my side. I had told myself it would be when I lost thirty pounds, when I stopped binging and purging, when I could run three miles straight – whichever came first. But today was a bad day, and I decided a tattoo would be my promise to myself to start fresh and stop screwing myself up. I needed the tattoo as soon as possible. The man on the phone told me to just come in and make an appointment. He seemed confused that I had called at all. I told him I’d be right in.
I walked at a clipped pace, Googling “tips for first tattoo” and “tattoo removal cost” on simultaneous tabs on my phone. I was a few blocks east of Thayer, after spending the afternoon walking in and out of shops like a caged rat instead of going to class, hoping to clear my head.
“Hey – I came in a few days ago and asked you about a text tattoo on my ribs?” Mariah handed me another post-it note and I re-wrote the quote for her. It was the last two lines of a Byron poem from my favorite book, “The Martian Chronicles” Byron also figured prominently in my favorite play, “Arcadia.” Mariah didn’t ask what the quote was, but I liked it. I figured it was literary and vague enough that I wouldn’t regret it, but specific enough to remind me of my favorite self. I wanted to preserve the 7th grade Dana who read “The Martian Chronicles” with an insatiable focus I now envy, and the Dana who read “Arcadia” her senior year of high school, who was smart and skinny and had gotten into her dream school.
Mariah pulled out her phone again. “Tuesday work for you? Is that too soon? Two o’clock?” I had class until two-thirty. “Three then? That’s even better.” Mariah told me to wear a dark bra and tank top, and to bring a hoodie sweatshirt. She wrote down the appointment time on her business card and handed it to me. She also included a website address she uses to find fonts, and told me to email her which one I was looking at. I chose the font and emailed her less than an hour after I left, sitting in a nearby coffee shop and downloading scripts until I found a cursive that seemed to work. My side already seemed to tingle. I spent the rest of the afternoon searching through websites about tattoo designs and tips, normalizing myself to this new culture. I thought about what future boyfriends would think, whether the orthodox Jew I dated last week in New York would judge me when he took off my clothes, whether I would be able to hide it from my parents. I wish I could have had it done then, when my mind was made up. I would be in chrysalis until Tuesday.